Teaching Left and Right

I had it in the back of my mind that I would haul out a training video that have stashed around here somewhere… to teach my young boy Kory his absolute directional commands “Left” and “Right”. But I’ve never been able to get him very interested in watching videos.

Well, it appears that I won’t require any kind of outside teaching assist because Kory seems to have it on the protocol that I used to teach these directional commands.

I’ll share the complete training protocol with you. Be mindful that this took something on the order of six months. At no time was I actually in a hurry, and each step has its own delights to the extent that you can dwell there for awhile without really being bored or impatient.


Ultimately what I wanted to accomplish is to tell my boy which direction to turn and he will turn in that direction. For example, if he’s driving forward of me to a jump I will tell him to “Jump – Left!” And he will do the jump and then turn left, without regard to which side I am working.

Okay, to back up a step on the vision… In the introduction of the commands Left and Right I simply want him to turn or spin in the direction I asked him to turn. My vision is to transfer this understanding of direction to the more useful definition described above.

Marker and Reward

The principal reward I used with Kory is a tug toy. He adores a game of tug and will work very hard offering behaviors to get it. I always attend a correct performance with a “marker”. And, no offense to clicker trainers, I used a good old fashion rusty & dull verbal marker. Though I quickly discovered “That’s right!” is the wrong marker to use when you’re teaching Left and Right. So my marker was more on the order of “Yah! What an excellent dog!”

A dog that is primarily food motivated should of course get that reward instead.

Training Steps

It’s useful for me to point out that I taught Right and Left Independently. So I might be on step one with a Left turn while being on step two with a Right turn.

Step One ~ Shaping With a Lure

I begin with using the toy to lure him into a turn. It’s a method I’ve used to teach a dog to “roll over” to shape the initial desired performance. And when he turns… he gets a game of tug with me. It’s very difficult for a dog to fail in this step unless you really aren’t very skillful at drawing the dog with a toy in your hand.

Even with this initial step I give the verbal directive, “Right” or “Left”. I know that some dog training purists maintain that you teach the behavior before putting a word to it. But most of those guys grew up in the 60’s and frankly took too many drugs.

Only a slight departure from very literal luring is to begin giving the directive with an overt arm signal. I’ll make a bit of a timing change here in that I’ll give the verbal directive and follow it in half a second with the physical cue. This is a grand beginning for a relative directional instructing the dog to turn away with a flip of the inside arm. This additional benefit of the training protocol will be realized later.

You’re ready to move on to the next step when you have this clear feeling that the dog is pushing into the performance based on the verbal and a slight moment before any assist from a physical cue.

Step Two – Free Shaping

I’m really not very big on luring. Or let’s put it this way, I don’t spend very long with it. I’ll lure just long enough to create the association and then I’ll begin to ask the dog to offer a behavior. Step One occupied all of about a day of small training sessions. Step Two is going to go on for months and months or, to be more precise, as long as it takes.

Free shaping means that I will give him the command to turn and I will wait until he offers me the performance that I want. In the beginning I will reward the simple act of turning his head in the direction I want him to turn. When the dog is first learning you might get him volunteering a raft of different behaviors as he casts around for what it is you want him to do… in order to earn that game of tug.

When free shaping I’m very careful to be still and not give physical cues or an extra assist in what I want him to do. If you build in a physical cue it might actually allow you to be successful in getting him to give the performance that moment. But you’re just fooling yourself if you believe he understands what you said. Really you’re still working at step one.

Allow the dog to problem solve. The impulse with many dog trainers is to help the dog. Helping him is really retarding his progress. To learn the skill you must ask the question (do you know how to do this?) and he must answer (hopefully ~ yes sir I do!)

The application of the reward and correction is important to understand for this step. Much of what I did with my boy Kory happened in the long cold months of winter. I’d sit at my computer working on this project or that… and about every five or ten minutes I’d turn around in my chair and have a brief training session. When I give him a turning command and he’s right… then I’ll have a game of tug with him. If I give the turning command and he guesses wrong, then I’ll turn back to my computer without saying much of a word to him with the idea that we’d resume the game in another five or ten minutes.

I was fond of keeping statistics as we worked. When he was up around 80% I was pretty sure I was on the right track with the method. My basic rule is that we’d keep at the training game until he guessed wrong. I did have to get back to work, after  all.

You know you’re ready for the next step when he stops guessing wrong… and you can’t turn back to your work.

Step Three – Generalizing with agility obstacles

Now I had a dog that had learned to spin in a direction that corresponded with my command to Left or Right. I was antsy to take it to the next step. I started with a couple of hoops (ala NADAC) in my back yard. I’d already taught him to go away from me to do a hoop; and so I wanted to combine the directive to do the hoop with the direction to turn when he’d gone through.

Most of Kory’s training had been with him facing me. We had to make the transition to being in motion in the same relative direction

As I suspected his immediate response when I gave the command was to just spin in place. I backed down the training steps to show him the two actions in sequence (hoop first, then turn). I did this by actually physically assisting in the turning direction with the inside arm flip that I discussed earlier [this is the arm signal for a Tandem Turn, btw.]

I cannot speak for all dogs. Kory got it straight away. The foundation of the free shaping led naturally to this step. I made sure not to cheat. When asking him to turn left most of the time I worked at his right side… which would be the natural turning direction, back to the handler. When asking him to turn right most of the time I worked on his left side. I say most of the time I worked on the side away from the turn; I wanted to be careful that he didn’t automatically make an association with the side I was on so that he would learn to turn away from me. This is a powerful skill to have; but turning to the handler is somewhat more important.

We took the Left and Right objective into the training building. He pretty much had it at the jumps right away. I also played with a turn off a contact obstacle into a pipe tunnel tucked under on the opposite side. He has a solid 2o2o so I’d be asking for the turn away from a dead standstill parking position. I had to initially step in to show movement cues to give concerted energy to the directive. After a week I can get him to turn away into the tunnel even if I’m 30′ away.

Other Training Notes

When playing tug with a dog… I’ve learned to hold my hands far enough apart so that when he chomps down his teeth won’t encounter flesh. I don’t really allow a dog to put his teeth on me. But when you’re rewarding a dog with a game of tug the accidental contact is inevitable.

I’ve established certain rules of play with Kory. Foremost, I suppose, is that I never bend over to pick up the toy myself. And it doesn’t really matter whether it’s the tug toy, a Frisbee, or a tennis ball. If he wants me to play with him he has to pick it up and put it in my hand. Dogs are creatures of rules. This is a very good rule to establish with a toy motivated dog.

By the way, if your dog is facing you then his right is your left; and his left is your right. We are always speaking of the dog’s Left and Right. If you are slow on the translation of these two directions… you should when doing a walk-through of a course  in which you intend to use them take the time to sort out the directions correctly and perhaps rehearse their application before you take  your dog onto the field.

Post Script

My, but this went on longer than I’d really expected. I had about three paragraphs pretty much sketched out in my brain. The story grew in the telling. And I can’t help but think I might have overlooked some small details.

To tell the truth I’ve never taught absolute directionals to a dog. My directional commands have always been relative… in other words, turn towards me or turn away from me. Now I feel quite sorry that I’ve never taken up this protocol. My old boy Bogie would have got it. My rationale of course is that I could be there to give instruction. And most of my handling was based on the notion that I would be there.

Now I’m not as young as I used to be. And Kory is clearly the fastest dog I’ve ever owned. I know good and well that I will not be able to make a living on relative directionals. Teaching Left and Right has been a delightful journey for me. And now that my boy Kory is a year old… I’ll look forward to the next training adventure.

Bud’s Google-proof Trivia Contest

This is a “Yes” or “No” question: Is it an error in the English language, either in speech or in writing, to end a sentence in a preposition?

Earliest correct answer posted as a reply to this blog post in the next ten days wins a free copy of the March Jokers Notebook. Only your first answer counts.


Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston: BudHouston@hughes.net. Check out my latest publication the Jokers Notebook ~ Dog Agility Distance Training Plan – March 2010 available on the Country Dream Web Store: http://countrydream.wordpress.com/web-store/ . Readers of my web log get a discount: Enter “special03” in the box for the discount code. And that will take $5.00 off the price of the order.


One Response to “Teaching Left and Right”

  1. Adrienne Says:

    Nope. Not in English. Though some purists will insist it shouldn’t be done. I believe it is grammatically incorrect in Latin.

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